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Researching In Colonial America

This week found me researching and learning about a family in early Colonial America, specifically Massachusetts. The main questions we were trying to answer centered on this family's first ancestor found in America: When did he arrive? Who were his parents?

American Pilgrim Hat

The settlement of the east coast of America was a lot more complicated than the Mayflower arriving in 1620, the first Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, and happily ever after. Since the founding of Jamestown in Virginia more than 10 years earlier several colonies were founded and failed.

We did not find Immigrant 1 listed on the Mayflower, but we did find an immigration record that stated that he arrived in Massachusetts in 1637.

We know that he died in Taunton, MA as there is extensive documentation attached in FindAGrave, including a clipping from a book about the early settlers of this surname.

While researching through New Plymouth Colony. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, In New England Volume 1 and 2 (Volume 2). Boston: Press of W. White, 185561 (available online at I found entries that he "propounded himself as a freeman" in 1643 having come from the settlement at Duxbury and then a later one that he was admitted as such in 1645. What does "propound" mean, I wondered? In Colonial America, at the very basic level this meant he was not a slave. A man was not formally considered to be free when first entering a Colony, he was considered "common."

If a man was in a Puritan Colony he would be under probation and carefully watched for a period of time. Once he passed his probation, he could present himself to the town council to be considered a "freeman" and no longer "common." But being a freeman also meant that if he had come over as an indentured servant (as many immigrants did) that his debt had been paid and his service obligation met. Once approved as a freeman a man could join the Church, buy land, and become a member of the governing body of his town.

Cartoon of groom and bride with bouquet

A question was also raised about the age of Immigrant 1's descendant in the family tree who was born in 1816 and was married circa 1830 at the age of fourteen to a woman/girl of 12. Could that be right? Since these were English Colonies, they were governed by English Common Law, which is the basis for the legal system in the US. At that time, that was exactly the legal age for marriage in England and America. So, not a red flag for the tree's accuracy.

We also sorted out that Immigrant 1's first son born in America in 1644 was not the ONLY one in the colony that had the same name. There were two John Jones's, one listed in records as "Senior" and the other as "Junior" but their ages did not jive with the existing records in the tree. Turns out, that in Colonial times, these suffixes were not considered part of the person's legal name like they are now. It was a temporary indicator to help identify which was which. In modern times, we recognize it as an attaching identifier. The odds are that these two men named "John Jones" were related, but not necessarily as father and son.

Woman dressed as Queen Elizabeth I of England

The questions of where Immigrant 1 was born and to whom have not yet been answered. There are conflicting recollections/records citing both Devonshire and Gloucestershire in England. And we're talking about the 1600's! There was a lot going on there then - Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. There was a little thing called The Plague, and still a lot of commotion about which was the True Church.

We may never know the answers with documented proof. But, we have the joy of having a family tree that goes back to the 1600's and is fairly well documented, thanks to the careful record-keeping of the Massachusetts Colony. We'll see how we progress into the Wild West across America. I'm a little worried about you, Iowa (just kidding!). But in an age where most people can't go further back than their grandparents, this is a very fortunate family, don't you think?

The new discoveries about history and places I make when doing Genealogy are very rewarding. AS I said at the outset, the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower has been greatly oversimplified, as are most historical events or we'd never get out of secondary school! If you are researching in this era you should at LEAST read the Wikipedia article(s) about the Mayflower to get a fuller picture of who and what were involved in establishing this colony.

What are you learning? What discoveries about the history and times and places have you made in your country of research?

Always a free tree evaluation and quote, just send me an email to and I'll take a look!

Thank you,

Leslie Ryan

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